Hundreds of old black-and-white photographs capturing Elgin’s decades of past are now available online for the world to see thanks to the work of volunteers from the Elgin History Museum and a grant from the Museum and Library Services Institute.
Photo negatives taken by The Courier-News between 1936 and 1994 were donated to the museum in the 1990s, said museum curator Beth Nawara. Images are being digitized so that they can be made available electronically.
“It took a lot of people and coordination to make this project happen,” said Laurel Garza, one of the people who donated their time to the effort.
Nawara said what they have done so far represents only a small part of the collection.
“There are 100,000 negatives in the Courier-News collection,” he said. “About 3,000 have been scanned, and 97,000 still need to be scanned.”
The museum received a $14,862 grant in August 2021, which will allow them to start the time-consuming process, Nawara said.
“I upload scanned images from the collection to the museum’s archival database,” says volunteer Jenna Wombles-Jagodzinski. “I then cross-referenced the image with the physical photo we have on file. From there I will fill in information about the uploaded image, such as the title, description and searchable keywords.”
Volunteer Jacqueline Marcus noted the photos were not only entered into the museum’s online searchable database but also added to the Illinois Digital Archives, which has its own software for searching and sorting.
Tasks also include reading accompanying article clippings to create photo descriptions and checking the spelling of names and other facts to ensure accuracy, said Marcus. Entries were reviewed by Nawara prior to upload to the Illinois archives.
Marcus’ husband Ira was paid to work on the project, which involved fixing 200 negatives so that the images could be downloaded. He put his 55 years of experience as a hobby photographer to a difficult task.
“Some repairs simply remove dust spots and/or scratches,” he says. “Others are much more complex, where the emulsion slips on the substrate material, distorting the image. For this I need to digitally move parts of the image and realign them. I was also very careful not to change the integrity of the original image.”
The easiest fix takes about 10 minutes, but more complicated ones can take up to an hour, says Ira Marcus.
During their work, the volunteers said that they found many interesting things about the city.
“I know that Elgin has been a very diverse community for a long time,” says Garza. “I enjoyed learning about the community group and the support they provide Elgin.”
Among her favorite images are ones from the Ebony fashion show, the American War Mothers promotion, the Fremont Center in the historic Black Elgin neighborhood, and local sportswear. He also enjoyed reading the answers from the “Children See and Hear” feature, said Garza.
Jacqueline Marcus said, “I wasn’t aware of the post-Vietnam influx of Asians. Local churches set up classes and housing for these immigrants to ease their transition into the general community.”
There are some fun things to follow through the photos, like the story of Cip Siete, a high school athlete who later becomes an Elgin cop, he says.
“Some African-American families have members who are featured for sporting and academic achievements. The Mexican Independence Day Queen (Guadalupano) and their court are also interesting,” said Marcus.
Wombles-Jagodzinski says knowing that residents and others can see old photos is important to him.
“I enjoyed working on this project knowing that the public would have access to these images to learn about the history of the Elgin community. Who knows? Maybe someone has relatives or someone they know in these photos.”
To view and search for images on the Elgin Historical Museum website, go to elginhistory.org/research/museum-collections.
To find the Courier-News collection at the Illinois Digital Archives, visit idaillinois.org/digital/collection/p16614coll80/search.
To view the Courier-News descriptive text-based index, go to elginhistory.org/research/photo-collection.
Unwatermarked digital copies of the images are available for $10 per scan through the museum’s website.
Mike Danahey is a freelance reporter for The Courier-News.